My eco-home nightmare

True, I’ve not turned on a radiator for two years – but in spring and summer it’s miserably, and sometimes dangerously, hot

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

I write this half-naked, sucking on ice cubes, breaking off sentences to stick my head in the fridge. In the flat below, one neighbour dangles out of her window, trying to reach fresh air, while another keeps having to go to hospital because the heat exacerbates a life-threatening heart condition.

We live in a beautiful new development on the banks of the Thames. Fancy pamphlets in our lobby boast of our building’s energy efficiency. In winter, we bask in a balmy 24ºC, without having used the radiators in two years. The insulation in the walls is super-thick; our energy bills are super-low. But from spring to autumn, whatever the weather, we broil.

Welcome to eco-home hell. A brave new world of affordable homes unfit for humans to live in, built to environmentally friendly specifications that make no sense. Windows that open wide, for instance, do not exist in the eco-home. Our windows are meant to open, at an upward slant, to a maximum of 10 cm, to stop heat escaping. Air flow is supposed to be regulated by ventilators, which only succeed in recycling warm air from the rest of the building. The first summer we lived here, it was like being in a sealed vault, perfumed by the steamy stench of other residents’ dinners. It took a year of petitioning before the developers reluctantly agreed to show us how to take the windows off their restrictors. To this day, they insist we shouldn’t, ‘for safety reasons’.

Unfortunately, open windows cannot alleviate the heat built up between our walls. The Housing Health and Safety Rating System states that ‘where temperatures exceed 25ºC, mortality increases and there is an increase in strokes’ alongside a plethora of medical complaints. In our flats last year, for three months, temperatures hovered between 28ºC and 32ºC every day. Even a mobile air-conditioning unit on full blast for 24 hours could not cut the temperature by more than a degree.

We exist in a state of permanent dehydration, which can be problematic for pregnant women and the very young — and that is exactly who ends up in eco-homes. Across the country, affordable eco-flats are being flung up by developers eager to impress the government. Across the country, happy young couples move in, unaware of the torment to come. One study of a housing association scheme in Coventry, conducted over three summers, found that temperatures rose above 25 degrees so regularly that 72 per cent of the flats put vulnerable residents at risk.

This situation will only get worse. From 2020, all new homes must be eco-homes, and summer temperatures are predicted to increase. After an eco-home has been built, the only way to bring the heat down is to install powerful air-conditioning units. My neighbours and I pray daily that our developer will install such units, but it would surely be better to design homes that didn’t need them.

Ours is a diverse development, ranging in size and grandeur from luxury penthouses used as holiday homes by foreign investors to the council block next door. Boris Johnson has slapped his mayoral stamp of approval on the advertising hoardings.

Currently, Zac Goldsmith is the favourite to replace Boris as Tory candidate for London mayor and all-round blond bombshell. To date, the MP for Richmond appears to count his strident opposition to the expansion of Heathrow as his chief political achievement. A former editor of the Ecologist, he seems keen on all forms of well-intentioned green nonsense. One only has to cast one’s mind back to our last eco-warrior mayor to worry what impact his principles could have. Ken Livingstone once launched an eco-manifesto by claiming that no one in his household flushed the toilet after urinating. Londoners, he urged, should follow his example. Also, they should desist from taking baths or lengthy showers, or letting the water run while brushing their teeth.

Oh, the very memory makes me perspire. So you’ll have to excuse me: I need to go and press my face into the freezer again.

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  • Darnell Jackson

    No doubt you were quite smug having secured this flat, preaching to all the virtue of eco-living.

    Shame, shame shame.

    • rtj1211

      There is virtue to eco-living if the eco-houses are actually designed properly. Just as there is virtue in you having sex with your wife if you are a decent and kind man. It’s just that if you treat her like an animal, the outcomes may not be so favourable……..

      • blandings
      • WFB56

        Ahhh yes, that old chestnut,much like, socialism is a perfect system if only it had been done right.

        As for the sex metaphor, that seems out of place and inappropriate.

  • KilowattTyler

    I think the problem is that the designers have confused ‘temperature regulation’ with ‘keeping heat in’. Temperature regulation means that a comfortable temperature is maintained year-round; minimising the amount of energy used for space heating is only relevant during colder months.
    If you’re going to have homes that carefully conserve heat then you need to have windows that can be opened wide in warmer weather and preferably also gardens and balconies so that people can sit outside in the sunshine. It would also be beneficial to ensure that there were plenty of trees in the neighborhood, to give shade and moderate the local climate.
    It is possible to design homes that use passive solar energy to provide cooling in summer by drawing a current of air through the home.

    • WTF

      The problem is that even in the UK, there comes a point where the ambient outside temperature can sustain itself at 85-90 F for several days and opening windows wont help that much. I remember in 2002 or 2003 when it got that hot that I used a portable A/C unit in the bedroom so we could sleep at night. Unless you have very expensive heat exchangers and control systems to monitor and control heat transfer, you have to fall back on items like regular A/C for the extremes of temperatures.

      • KilowattTyler

        If a number of eco-homes are built on one site at the same time it might be economical to heat and cool them using a reversible heat-pump with the ground as the source of heat and ‘cool’. Once you go down a few metres the temperature is pretty constant (hence the coolness of cellars and caves). In both winter and summer the temperature difference between the desired room temperature and the temperature underground is less than that of the difference between room temperature and outside air, hence less energy is needed to maintain a comfortable living environment.
        It might be possible to use heat-pipes (tubes sealed at both ends containing a co-axial ‘wick’ and a hollow space, filled with a liquid that boils at the temperature at which optimum heat transfer is to take place) to transfer heat passively between underground to living space.

        • WTF

          Good point and what I was trying to point out.

          There is technology to maintain acceptable home temperatures but they can be expensive to install and the jury is out whether you can save energy costs in the long run. Solar power has not exactly worked out as being efficient enough despite government subsidies so I’m a little leery of how long the pay back takes for the capital investment.

  • Precambrian

    Give me a drafty old cottage with single glazing and a log fire over these hermetically sealed modern houses.

    • blandings

      Agreed, that’s what i live in.
      I cannot bear centrally heated, draft proofed houses, they’re stifling.
      Sure I have to put on a wooly jumper occasionally – so what.

      • Muttley

        Ditto! I would loathe not being able to control the temperature. And not being able to fling the windows open is unimaginable.

        • In the dead of winter?

          • Muttley

            Yes? Why not? I think people have forgotten about fresh air and jumpers.

          • Callipygian

            There’s a difference though between ‘fresh’ and ‘bone-chilling’.

          • Muttley

            Bracing, we call it.

          • Callipygian

            I don’t think I want ‘bracing’ when I’m feet-up at home with a book or the laptop. ‘EMbracing’ might be a different matter, esp. with my darling dog.

          • Muttley

            Don’t forget the log fire! But yes, one does occasionally have to resort to shared bodily warmth on colder evenings.

          • : )

    • WTF

      Good point as many people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to having a home that was so well insulated no air could get in. In fact, Gas heater regulations demand you have free air flow from outside the property for the gas boiler/fire other wise you’ll get CO poisoning due to oxygen starvation.

  • rtj1211

    This is an issue of planning permission and planning licenses. Buildings such as you describe should not be given planning permission and should therefore not be built. More importantly, the entire Board of the company building them should be made to live in them for two years before any of them could be sold. Then they’d build something suitable and proper………

    What is it about Britain that says that we will only build houses where you either die of cold in the winter or risk dying of heatstroke in the summer??

    • WFB56

      The last thing that we need is more power giving to the planning bureaucracy. The Government created most of this problem and the market will correct for it by making prospective owners and tenants aware of the shortcomings. You can’t stop these being built, but you can deter people from buying or renting them and that will bring the madness to a crashing halt.

  • Hamburger

    What a rant. I too live in an eco-house, but unlike Ms Hill we have no problems in summer. There are two areas which the poor Ms Hill appears not to understand. In winter the aim is to keep the warmth in and to increase passive heating through south facing windows.In the summer it is to prevent warmth from coming in through the south facing windows. We have shutters which work perfectly.
    I am reminded of a story from am architect who designs schools. They all have to be of an ecological standard in Hamburg. He planned a primary school which worked perfectly with shutters preventing too much sun in the summer, louvers to allow the warmth out at night. However there were a number of teachers who, like Ms. Hill, were unable to operate these simple devices. They always complained that the building did not work whereas the problem lay in the intellectual capacity of the teachers.

    • WTF

      Your argument is totally flawed and even if you bricked up all south facing windows, when the outside ambient temperature hits 80 F and more which it has done on many occasions in the UK, that heat will still come into the house and make it uncomfortable if not unbearable.

      The traditional approach in the UK for centuries is to open windows to get a breeze to gain the perception of a lower temperature as air passing over a surface (you) removes heat making you feel cooler. That’s why people use ceiling fans as they are low energy devices and make you feel cooler. The problem is that crude ‘systems’ like that used on a low cost eco houses (not 1 million pound designer eco homes), only have a very limited range of useable outside ambient temperatures where they work well. Normally its from 45 F to 75 F and below that, you´ll be cold and above that, you´ll cook.

      • Hamburger

        As our temperature s here in Hamburg have a wider range than in the UK and our eco-house works well you are mistaken in your assertion. We have louvered shutters in the south and west facades which we shut in summer leaving the windows open for a cool breeze. In the winter the large windows help warm the house. Think of a greenhouse. It is warmed in the winter and in the summer the glass needs to be shaded otherwise it is too hot inside. It is all pretty low tec. However if you try to live in a eco house and behave as if you live in a 200 year old cottage you will either be to hot or too cold. You have the choice.

        • WTF

          If the ambient temperature outside is 80 F or higher in the summer, its commonsense that the inside will match that temperature at a minimum if the windows are open. Louvre shutters will help stop direct sun light from heating up the rooms through the windows but convected hot air coming in will still make the house warm up to the same temperature as outside. Thats simple physics which you cant stop.

          The ONLY way you can keep the inside temperature lower than the outside temperature in summer is to do what the Spanish do, namely shut all windows and shutters and don’t open the doors. Thats basically what they do, but Brits dont want to live in an artifical cave or even a real one like those caves homes in southern Spain.

          • Hamburger

            I liver in south England and the weather was far removed from Spain’s. Perhaps you are suffering from global warming.

          • WTF

            Not global warming but climate change.

            The UK has frequently been hotter this year than Spain due to climate change as has been reported many times and even in Florida the weather patterns have changed substantially compared to the 1980’s.

            The only way to keep cool in the UK during 90 F temperatures is to run portable A/C and/or run ceiling fans, something that most Brits wont do. The houses are not designed to keep cool in the summer.

          • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

            Older houses are because they have high ceilings. Unfortunately this makes them more expensive to heat in the winter.

          • WTF

            Try ceiling fans run in reverse pushing air upwards forcing warmer air downwards.

          • brand value

            It doesn’t.

          • Hironimous Nostril

            Ah yes, Germany. The home of all those so called superior electric radiator shyster companies like Elkatherm and Wibo. The ones that fail to tell you that a £20 heater from Argos will give the same heat.

          • WTF

            I think you’re replying to someone else.

            A 2kw electric heater that relies in heating electric elements will off course produce an identical amount of calories of heat no matter what the make or price. If fan assisted and close to you it will obviously feel warmer but wont raise the ambient temperature of the room any more than a convection heater.

            My point about ceiling fans was that as hot air rises, pushing it back down no matter what the source of heating will make the air warmer where you are sitting. Likewise in summer, air flow over an object will remove heat from that object making you feel cooler.

            The problem with eco claims & advertised claims, much of it is BS and none of it quantifies the parameters required to gain the benefit.

      • Ambientereal

        The main point should not be the “maximum temperature” but the daily average in summer. The dwellings tend to be at the daily average temperature and if it is still too high, then it is advisable to open the windows only when it is colder outside, and in that case it is neccesary that the windows can be wide open to let enough cool air in. I believe the problem here must be connected with heat gaining devices like big glassed surfaces that produce a huge heat input in summer. Probably such areas should be shaded and they have no shading system or the users don´t know how to operate them. Sometimes due an incorrect design, the shadings are put in the inside of the glasses while the correct way to do it is to put them in the outside. Please search “Exterior Rolling Shutters”

        • WTF

          The bottom line is that in Spain its traditionally hotter outside than inside in the summer and to try and keep it that way without A/C the Spanish shut everything up and keep the shutters closed for most of the time. In the winter houses are similarly shut up except that the shutters are open to allow the sun to aid heating.

          Even in England, my conservatory reached 100 F in the spring due to being closed up all day long.

          • Ambientereal

            There is something wrong. In England, the maximum temperature in a summer day at midday may be 100 F but not the daily average. Weather charts show for July average maximums of about 70 F and average minimums of 55 F. By those conditions, a dwelling can only reach 100 F if there is a huge heat gain by sun radiation.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Here in Britain we can’t count on sunshine. Therefore when the sun comes out it puts a smile on our faces. I shudder at the thought of having to close shutters on a sunny day. I’ve lived in a country where sunshine isn’t such a novelty & there, when you know that the sun will still be shining tomorrow, & the day after, you’re more relaxed about shuttering windows.

      • Hamburger

        We are not more blessed with sun than you are I fear and we do not close the shutters at the first sign of sun. As far as I can remember, we did not close them at all last year. You do learn to shut them when it is necessary.

        • Purple Commoner

          Fixed external shading on south-west facing facades is such a revolution. They are just pieces of metal/timber, why this is so difficult to add to a project design is beyond me, FFS.

          • Hamburger

            It isn’t. Perhaps someone wants to save money.

      • lupinolupin

        I absolutely agree.I don’t want to spend the summer sitting around in the dark.

  • Muttley

    There isn’t going to be much eco about it if everyone is importing air conditioning units.

    • WTF

      In reality A/C units are much more energy efficient than other forms of heating a home including gas boilers and most certainly electric fan heaters. I have an A/C unit (Split system) in a living room in my villa, a study and the bedroom.

      I’ve measured the power drawn by one of these units and they’re around 1 kw for heating or cooling a room and they cycle on and off. I could warm up a room from cold in 15 minutes because of the very large but quiet inside fan unit whilst a 2 kw fan heater barely made a dent in warming the room and was consuming twice as much.

      You can purchase A/C units in Spain for around 200 pounds that will heat or cool a large room so for the average house that no more than 1000 pounds for 5 rooms. Add at most another 1000 pounds for install costs and that’s it. The average gas radiator system will cost 10k at a minimum to pay for and have installed and far more messy and you’ll still roast in the summer.

      • Muttley

        That’s interesting, thanks. I think the very warm climate in Spain means they are more up on the technology than we are here. In my experience the most you can expect here is one of those things they ship into the office in the hottest week of the year that makes absolutely no difference!

        • WTF

          The very warm climate in Spain has to be taken in context because if you listen to Ian Duncan-Smith over his rhetoric to stop winter fuel allowance its not based on fact. Having lived on the Costa Blanca for 10 years in a villa built in 1986 here’s some real facts I’d love to stuff under his nose.

          Firstly, its only recently in the past 10 years that building regs in Spain actually required some element of insulation for energy conservation. Previous to that, many properties were built along the Costas as holiday homes, they had no insulation and were hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

          Air con now rules in many villas now because of this although that brings its problems as the electric supply could be as low as 2.5 kw for the whole property, just enough to run a fridge, TV and lights. White goods will need an upgrade to 5kw and I upgraded to 9 kw to accomadate A/C to avoid the power going out. In the uK, there is not practical limit on energy usage.

          The Spanish tend to keep there windows and shutters closed all day to keep out the heat and it does work fairly well but Brits retired or on vacation understandably want to see daylight and they’re going in and out all the time to their pool and the villa heats up in the summer.

          That’s the Costas, however if you go up into the mountains its very different. I visited Granada one Easter time to see the Alhambra and it was 80 F BUT when we drove up into the Sierra Nevadas to 8000 feet, we were in shorts standing in 3 feet of snow with skiers around us. Madrid at 3000 feet is very dry and hot in the summer but bitterly cold in the winter. Teruel a town between Zaragoza and Valencia killed many fighters during the civil war due to snow and North West Spain in the Asturias its wet, wet, wet just like the UK but very pretty and green.

          What I’m really saying is that Spain has a very varied climate depending where you are and idiots like IDS deliberately just compare the UK with say Costa del Sol which is like comparing Newcastle with Blackpool.

          • Mr TaxPayer

            Interesting point on the limit on energy usage. Energy companies are pushing the installation of ‘smart’ meters as an aid to consumers saving energy, What they’re forgettig to mention is that these meters also have the capabiltiy to ration energy consumption as well as measure it.

          • WTF

            They have been doing that in Spain for a long time and if you exceed the supply limit you’re contracted for, it trips out until you reduce the load. In all honesty its quite a sensible thing to make people think about how much energy they are using especially as the standing charge is higher for greater capacity plus the cost per kw hour is higher the more you use. The UK is way behind the curve here.

    • justlookin

      Quite. On my last trip enjoying the theatrical experience of what is our capital city has become, the hotel we stayed in featured an air-con unit. It was no more than 18 °C outside and the unit had to muscle in to cool our room. That is quite ridiculous.

  • WTF

    The usual issue of tree huggers is failing to understand basic physics on heat loss & gain basics.

    In Florida on the gulf coast this past week the temperature has been topping out at 102 F, the humidity was still in the 70% range and its been miserable UNLESS you’re in doors (or your car) and have the air on. Whether its a cold winter or a Florida summer ideally you need good insulation to keep the heat in during winter but the heat out during summer and that requires having all windows and doors closed as well.

    Clearly, a well insulated home designed to keep in heat during the winter is going to ‘cook’ in the summer unless an effective method can be used to remove excess heat and humidity. Even if you can keep most of the outside heat out, some will leak in but due to appliances there will be heat build up inside to the point of being uncomfortable. A half open or even fully open window will NOT do this in the UK when outside temperatures rise above 65/70 F and will just add to the problem.

    For practical purposes, its a total myth that you can design an eco house that can self regulate its temperature to maintain a comfortable climate all year round without the aid of air flow and extracting ground heat with a heat exchanger or potentially having a house that can track the sun and rotate. Clearly that’s out of reach of most peoples budget so its back to conventional heating or preferably A/C that is more efficient in heat/cooling conversion. Ceiling fans will perceptually lower room temperatures by 3-5 F and that can save money.

    The bottom line is that you could design a house that is very energy efficient almost to the point of requiring very little energy BUT it will require a very costly control system to manage the house temperature all year around to meet what most people would demand. I would suggest it would cost upwards of 200k pounds to achieve this with insulation, glazing, solar controls etc and that would pay for a lot of electricity being used by low cost A/C units in most rooms and just using the ones in the room you inhabit.

  • WFB56

    A pretty expensive lesson for Ms. Hill, but a powerful warning for the rest of us.

  • Sam Pyeatte

    Sounds like Europe needs another Hitler to come through and flush out the far-left mental rot that is implementing a totalitarian hell.

    • redsquirrel

      no it doesn’t.

  • Ron

    The present breed of Eco housing will go the way of sixties high rise. Knighthoods for the architects and demolition for there efforts.

  • redsquirrel

    i live in a modern, well insulated house. the windows open. it doesn’t need the heating on much. it’s great. maybe the author’s design needed tweaking, maybe she is just a whinger. Doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater and completely abandon the idea of designing efficient homes.

    • Alex

      I think you’ll find the bathwater should feed into the toilet cistern

      • redsquirrel

        good plan. obviously in places like California and Australia doubly important but even in places with lots of rainfall conserving water is important as the energy requirements to produce clean water are quite high.

  • van Lomborg

    You have issues with overheating in your zero carbon home?
    Check the settings on your heat exchanger/recovery unit or if in doubt speak with an engineer to help. The principle is explained here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_recovery_ventilation

  • PT

    Why don’t you sell up and move? If you bought as recently as 2009, it’s likely to have risen in value by at least 50%, it not more.

  • cardigan

    “summer temperatures are predicted to increase.” Emphasis on the word “predicted”. It doesn’t yet seem to be happening.

  • Bonkim

    Poor engineering – you can design the eco home to be functional and efficient whatever the outside temperature and maintain good ventilation. I suppose this one was designed by an incompetent.

  • Craig Austin

    Green=Eco=$cam, no exceptions.

  • ptaipale

    Emily, it sounds like your apartment’s engineering is faulty or it is operated incorrectly. Don’t you have building maintenance people in Britain? Over here, we just complain to the house management, and they set it right. If they don’t, we complain to the council which will force them to fix things. You don’t have enough air circulation; over here, we have triple windows that have a heat deflection layer and argon insulation layer between two of the innermost glass surfaces – and still it’s possible to open them in the summer.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Surely a life with too many hot or cold snaps will have a deleterious effect on anyone’s general constitution. Why would an immune or natural defence system even bother to remember how to work properly if its experiences of the environment are so limited in kind? talk about new strains of colds and flu viruses..

  • ChristyCTaylor

    ….All time hit the climatedepot Find Here

  • BoiledCabbage

    Zac Goldsmith lives in a Georgian mansion, built traditionally of brick, with sash windows and a slate roof. A perfected design for the summer humidity [and downpours] of London, an evolution of many hundreds of years.